Upon arriving on campus at one of the world’s most prestigious universities in 1966, Ghana-native Kwaku Ohene-Frempong ’70 MED ’75 soon became a two-sport star while at the same time excelling in the classroom. But he never forgot where he came from.
Growing up as the youngest of seven children in a farming family in Kukurantumi, a town of 7,000 in rural Ghana, Ohene-Frepong came to Yale with the intention of using his education to aid his country.
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Ohene-Frempong was willing to sacrifice athletics in order to fulfill that goal. Whether it was deciding between lab and track practice or the Olympics and his doctoral thesis at Yale Medical School, it was never a question which took priority. And he has no regrets.
Today, Ohene-Frempong, now the director of the Comprehensive Sickle Cell Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, has dedicated his life to the study of sickle cell anemia. His work has saved the lives of thousands of children, many of them from his homeland of Ghana.
Eighteen years ago, Ohene-Frempong developed the Newborn Screening for Sickle Cell Disease program in Kumasi, Ghana, which aims to raise awareness of the disease and provide treatment for those who need it. The program first treated 10 patients, but that number now stands at over 10,000. Due to its success, the project has gained the attention of Ghana’s Ministry of Health, which now hopes to nationalize Ohene-Frempong’s endeavor by expanding it to other parts of the nation.
ON A MISSION
Many families in Ohene-Frempong’s hometown, including his, hesitated to send their children to school, but through the years, Ohene-Frempong’s parents saw what an education could do for a family and encouraged he and his siblings to go to the school.
“The value of formal education had become established for their children and coming from poor rural areas, they were aware that those who became well educated at least in the sense of a formal education had a better chance of success economically,” he said of his parents. “Even though they didn’t get [an education], they wanted to make sure that it would be a part of their children.”
Upon finishing middle school, Ohene-Frempong had to leave town to further his education as there was no high school in Kukurantumi. After a lengthy application process, Ohene-Frempong was accepted into Prempeh College, a prestigious boarding school in the city of Kumasi. And it was at Prempeh where he began to gain national athletic attention. In his third year of school, he decided to walk on to the track team. On the first day of practice, he said he was able to long jump farther than anyone else on the team. He was immediately invited to join the team and went on to win individual national titles in the triple jump, broad jump and the 120-yard hurdles. By the time he finished high school, he was competing for the Ghanaian national track team.
But Ohene-Frempong always kept athletics in perspective — he knew he wanted to become successful in something other than athletics. He had chosen a science track in high school and wanted to become a pediatrician. In order to pursue that goal, he said he knew he had to look beyond Ghana.
“In a developing country, you’re always looking for opportunities to study abroad and so my friends and I were always looking for opportunities for universities that we wanted to apply to,” he said.
Ohene-Frempong saw just what he was looking for in a newspaper advertisement. The United States Agency for International Development, African governments and American universities had joined together to create the African Scholarship Program of American Universities, which gave students in newly-independent African nations the opportunity to study at major universities across the United States. Acceptance to the scholarship program was based on high school records, SAT scores and a series of interviews. In the end, Ohene-Frempong was one of 16 Ghanaians accepted to the program and left the country to attend Yale.
MAKING THE TRANSITION
At Yale, Ohene-Frempong played for both the soccer and track teams. Hubert Vogelsinger, Ohene-Frempong’s soccer head coach at Yale, said he was an exciting and skilled player. But it was in track that Ohene-Frempong left his biggest mark.
Ohene-Frempong won the 120-yard hurdles and the triple jump his senior year at the Ivy League outdoor championships, set a school record in the 120-yard hurdles (13.9 seconds) and broke the Ivy League Championship record in the 60-yard high hurdles (7.10 seconds). He captained the Eli track team and won the William Neely Mallory Award given to the most outstanding male senior athlete. He was the first international student to win the award.
“He was an excellent teammate, a very good team player, totally dedicated to the team ,” former soccer teammate and roommate Soni Oyekan ’70 said. “He had the same attitude in track. He had goals and he drove himself to the benefit of the team.”
However, Ohene-Frempong considered quitting athletics at one time during his Yale career. As a biology major on the premed path, Ohene-Frempong said that at one point he had three labs Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. And with no track practice Mondays, a rest day, and no practice Fridays, the day before a meet, he felt that he had no time to devote to the team.
“It never occurred to me to select my courses to make room for track or soccer,” he said. “So I thought if I wasn’t able to do my best in track, then I should just drop it and pay attention to my academic work.”
Ohene-Frempong ended up quitting track for only a week after talking with then-head coach Robert Gietengack, who supported his determination to keep academics first.
Mark Young ’68, captain of the Eli track team during Ohene-Frempong’s sophomore year and currently Yale’s head coach, said Ohene-Frempong’s commitment to his studies struck him as something special and is still a story he tells his athletes today.
“He felt this obligation to be corresponding with people at home, whether they were his parents or the sponsors who had helped him gain admission,” Young said. “He felt a commitment back to his family and his people.”
In another instance, Ohene-Frempong had the opportunity to compete in the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City and was planning to take a semester off in order to compete for Ghana. But when the International Olympic Committee decided to allow South Africa to participate in the games, many African countries, including Ghana, decided to boycott. Thinking that Ghana was not going to participate in the 1968 games, Ohene-Frempong continued his studies at Yale as a junior.
When the I.O.C. decided to retract its invitation to South Africa to participate, Ghana decided to re-enter the competition and asked Ohene-Frempong to compete. He turned it down and decided to focus on his school work in what he called an easy decision.
Yet the difficulty of balancing athletics and academics was not the only challenge facing Ohene-Frempong.
In addition to making the transition to an Ivy League school in a new country, he also arrived in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement. He said it was a bit of a surprise to see African Americans keeping to themselves coming from a racially homogenous country where the notion of race was almost non-existent. Moreover, he said that even though he was also black, it was difficult to relate with African Americans on a cultural level, and thus he felt as though he was placed right in the middle of racial tensions he didn’t fully understand. But ultimately, he said, the experience was one he appreciated.
“It was quite a bit of an education for African students, myself included, coming to a campus where we were as Africans, part of a larger minority of people of African descent,” Ohene-Frempong said. “It was clear to me that growing up in Africa, we had been taught very little about our history, particularly our history as related to slavery and the forced enslavement of millions of our people. In the end, I appreciated it because it forced me and my friends from Africa to come out of a shell that we had lived in.”
Ohene-Frempong competed occasionally for the Ghanaian National Team but officially called it quits in 1972, when he left the team in order to devote his time to his studies at Yale Medical School, which he had already been attending for two years. It was there that he found his passion for studying sickle cell disease.
He said one of his cousins had died at the age of 18 while Ohene-Frempong was a child in Ghana, but at the time he did not know the cause of death. After hearing his first lecture about the disease at the medical school, he began to understand what had caused his cousin’s passing. He contacted his sister, who confirmed that his cousin had died of sickle cell disease, sparking his interest in the subject. Soon afterwards, Ohene-Frempong’s first son, Kwame, was born with sickle cell disease. From that point on, he decided to devote his life to studying the disease.
In medical school, Ohene-Frempong worked on a doctoral thesis titled “Child Health in a Ghanaian Community,” which he said was an attempt to better understand the health issues in his home country. What puzzled him most while working on the project was that few children in Ghana were diagnosed with sickle cell disease, a disease he knew was prevalent in Africa.
According to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s Web site, sickle cell disease is the result of abnormal hemoglobin in red blood cells which causes the cells to have a long and pointy shape, as opposed to the normal round disk shape. The unusual shape can cause damage to blood vessels and prevent the spleen from removing bacteria from the blood, leading to sometimes fatal infections. Ohene-Frempong said that preventative treatment can be given to those who have the disease, but not knowing who has the disease is a problem that pervades many African countries. Sickle cell disease is especially prevalent in Africa because carriers of the gene are less likely to die from malaria.
Children with sickle cell disease are made more susceptible to infections and diseases such as malaria. These complications were masking the fact that these children were actually afflicted with sickle cell disease.
Because of his research, Ohene-Frempong was awarded a grant from the National Institutes of Health to develop a pilot project in Kumasi with the goal of increasing education in the region about sickle cell disease and diagnosing newborns with the disease early on so that preventative treatment against infection and other diseases could be conducted.
Mary Lamptey, who has worked with Ohene-Frempong on the project for eight years said that before the project was started, it was widely believed in Ghana that if a child had sickle cell disease, they could not live beyond a certain age, or that a child with complications from sickle cell disease was bewitched. It was these misconceptions that Ohene-Frempong set out to fix, and through his work, Lamptey said that those misconceptions have begun to fade away.
“Dr. Ohene-Frempong has saved the lives of many children who would have died without anyone knowing they had sickle cell disease,” Lamptey said. “He has a passion for this. He’s dedicated to his work and he believes that if he’s able to get people to understand what sickle cell is, they should be able to help people who have sickle cell disease.”
Ohene-Frempong said that before developing the newborn screening project, 90 percent of newborns with sickle cell disease were in Africa and that before reaching five years of age, most of those children would die. But because of the project’s long term care program, Lamptey said that she’s been able to see children live beyond the five years that was the previous norm.
“People had access to treatment [before], but it wasn’t as organized as we have it now,” she said.
Now that the project has expanded to include over 10,000 patients, Ohene-Frempong and Lamptey expressed their desire to expand to the other ten regions of Ghana. Ghana’s Ministry of Health, who Lamptey said was previously not committed to raising awareness for sickle cell disease, is now cooperating to expand the project to the rest of the country, having seen the help that Ohene-Frempong’s work has brought to the people of Kumasi. She added that because the project has shown that two percent of the Ghanaian population — or one in 50 newborns — are afflicted by the disease, the government now sees the importance of the program. In comparison, only one in 2,400 newborns are afflicted by the disease in the United States.
In addition to expanding and directing the project, Ohene-Frempong continues to research the long-term effects of sickle cell disease.
“I think what he’s done in Ghana is really fantastic,” said Soni Oyekan, who remains Ohene-Frempong’s lifelong friend. “I really envy him for the work that he’s doing where he has translated some of the things he done in the US been able to get through some of the difficulties in doing something like that and implanting it into his own country.”
Previously in the series: “Star left tracks in record book,” Feb. 4, 2010